Eric is one of Excel Rocktown's Runners (ultrarunner!) and is an ambassador for ReNew Earth Running, an organization "running to protect and heal the environment by restoring land to the stewardship of Tribal Nations and Indigenous leadership".
Until more recently I have not been a very competitive trail runner. I was a hurdler in my youth and as an adult I’ve done a few road races. I’ve done four trail events from 2018 to now, and only “raced” two of them. I’m pretty much just an average runner when it comes to speed, but I really like running around in the woods. There’s something about running trails that gives me a great sense of accomplishment and well-being. While sometimes I might miss some of the finer details of a place that I might not if I was going at a slower pace, there’s something amazing about connecting to whole landscapes and having the ability to explore a lot of places at one go. And at a very basic level, for me it is important to be someplace remote and peaceful on the regular. Sure, I run on streets and roads when I have to, but I need those hours away from everything where it’s just me and the land.
But there’s another good reason to run trails: it’s better for your running to add variety, and you get the added mood boosting benefit of being in a natural space. If you’re already a runner, trail running helps prevent overuse injuries, improves balance and stability, and engages your core more than road running. There is more variation in surfaces and terrain, and the climbs, drops, twists and turns, and changing surfaces all mean you’re hardly ever running the same way for more than a few seconds (or minutes…tops!).
One time a friend asked me what I think about when I’m running trails. I’ve found that I have sort of an inner “coach” or self-talk that has helped me make explicit what I’m doing and why as I move down the trail. Here are my top three: 1) breath, 2) even effort, and 3) slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
#1: Breath. Obviously this is the most basic thing. If you don’t breathe, you pass out, whether you’re sitting at your computer or running a marathon. You can learn a lot about breathing well by practicing yoga or meditation. When running I synchronize my breaths with my cadence on an odd-numbered cycle – a technique I learned about in a Runner’s World article ages ago. If you’re a musician, this would be like breathing in 5/4 or 7/8 time, with your foot strike as one beat. Breathe in three beats, exhale two beats (I tend to syncopate it to divide the cycle into two even halves). Using an odd measure means your breathing cycle steps off on the opposite foot each time, helping to build in balance to your gait and preventing injury over time. You can practice this technique while walking or running on a flat surface. Eventually it’ll become so natural you won’t think about it. The rhythm and measure length will change as you increase or decrease effort, and these changes will be your “gears.” Your gears can be a reference point for gauging your level of effort at any given time, and will help you learn to pace yourself by feel as you become better attuned to what is happening in your body.
#2: Even effort. The “even effort” principle applies to road running, too. The difference on trails is that, depending on where you’re running, the terrain and the surface may be changing rapidly. You may also be dealing with steeper grades than you would on roads. For that reason, road pace does not translate to trail pace. If your long run pace on the road averages 9:00/mile, it might be 11:00 or 12:00 or even slower on trails for the same level of effort, depending on how severe the terrain gets. So don’t even try to keep up the pace. Believe it or not, trail runners walk – even the pros! Instead, find the “pocket” you want to run in – your level of effort – and stay smooth. Remember to notice your breath: your body will force you to change gears as you push or relax your effort. Choose a gear, relax into that pocket, and flow over the trail. Don’t fight the trail. Let the trail decide your speed. When climbing, shorten your stride, keep your cadence even and gentle, use your upper body, and think of yourself floating smoothly up the hill. Walk if you want to or need to – sometimes that’s more efficient than running – or shift into a new gear if you have to increase effort to keep going. Your body will tell you what to do. All of those pointers apply whether you’re moving at a relaxed effort or trying to set a record.
#3: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Eventually you’re going to get to the real fun stuff: rocks and roots! Of course, the technical stuff is only fun when you stay upright, so these are some tips on how to have fun and stay safe. Running through a rock garden can be a blast if you think of it like play or like dancing. It is about keeping your upper body relaxed, keeping your hips and waist on a swivel, picking up your feet, and keeping your eyes scanning up the trail. Ever play the lava game as a kid? You know, that game where you can only step on the rocks or you die a fiery death? It’s a great way to train your brain to solve the puzzle of “how to get from A to B when it gets complicated.” Playing little games like this can be a fun way to improve your balance and strengthen the soft tissue that supports your feet and ankles, and it develops your brain’s ability to pick efficient lines as you run. Trail running is both a cognitive and physical activity. When I find myself stubbing my toe or rolling my ankle in a technical section my first reaction (after “oww! @%&”) is to tell myself to “slow down.” After that, it’s “be smooth.” Those two words, “slow” and “smooth,” put my mind back into play mode, and they also keep me centered, focused, and safe. It’s important that I not try to be fast, explosive, jerky, or rushed when moving along a rough section. If that means pausing to reset myself, to get my brain and body back in sync, that’s okay. It reminds me to be playful with the obstacles, stay light on my feet, and float. With time, the mantra “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” will come true. When I am really focused I have the experience of time slowing down as my brain instinctively picks the lines through the rocks. By slowing down, I can clear the rough stuff faster than I could by white knuckling my way through as fast as I can.
I’ll add one caution that comes from experience: I don’t fall often, but when I do it’s usually on the easy parts. In particular, easy sections that follow technical sections. It is easy to lose focus in the seconds after clearing some tough trail, when your brain relaxes and you fail to notice that little pebble of death hiding in plain sight!
A note on the spirit of things
All of us come to running for our own reasons with our own beliefs and values. One important value that I’m learning from my Native teammates is to run with respect. That means having a reverence and gratitude for the land that is hosting me as I run, and along with that, an awareness and reverence for myself as I interact relationally with the land. That includes acknowledging that I am running on stolen Native land, and there have been painful histories lived out here. I’ve found that if I come into a run holding this intention and awareness, I am more attuned to what is going on in me and around me.
I avoid coming to the trail with a conquest mindset. I don’t think it’s healthy or safe to be in conflict with the land I’m running on, so if I have a sense that it’s not right for me to do the thing I’d planned on, I listen to my gut. That could mean choosing to run on roads to avoid damaging muddy trails during a spring thaw; it might mean opting not to do that off-trail exploration I was thinking about that could damage delicate ecosystems or degrade historic sites; or it can be something as simple as, “I really wanted to send it on this descent, but now I’m noticing it is hot and humid and my brain feels a bit foggy and I’m not finding the lines on these rocks, so maybe I’ll slow down and walk instead.” That is working with what is happening in the body and the air and the trail and not fighting it and risking getting hurt. I think it also means taking the time for curiosity and not just putting down your head and running: pause and enjoy the views, notice the plants growing along the trail, and talk to the animals if that’s your thing! There is give and take, dialogue, connection, mutual care: we take care of the land, and the land takes care of us. For me, when trail running is about connection, not conquest, it means that being attuned to my mind and spirit is just as important as what I do with my body.